Pencils Down

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If you’re looking for a line of work where it’s relatively easy to become well-liked, teaching probably isn’t for you. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to have students and/or colleagues like you — I’ve certainly had my fair share of both — but the heart of your work is convincing a lot of people, more and more of whom have grown up with the instant gratification of modern technology burnt into their synapses at an early age, to set aside those enjoyments and instead do a lot of work. Making matters worse is the fact that school environments are becoming more and more stressful for a plethora of reasons, and the potential rewards of a good education are being increasingly called into question by an American discourse teeming with torpid troglodytes. Even with all the steps that good teachers can take to make the classroom experience less painful, they still have to fight a very uphill battle when it comes to engaging students and convincing them of the merits of surrendering so many of their salad days to all this work, which may or may not prove to be worth it for students when they finally escape the clutches of school.

What’s even worse is how schools keep increasingly falling under outside forces that don’t know and/or don’t care about how education actually works, and instead try to boil student achievement down to more and more standardized tests, using those as as outsized (and sometimes the only) metric to gauge student success. This is hardly news, and I’ve certainly written about it enough on here over the years, but I’ve been doing a lot more research on that over these past few months, as part of an upcoming project of mine, and to learn so much about not only how this kind of thinking messes up kids, but also how so many of the people responsible for this phenomenon clearly care about nothing but how the rackets they’ve built up keep fattening their wallets, has been a big factor in the depression I’ve felt these past couple of months. I wish that I could just ignore all this stuff, but not only would doing so basically kill a huge project that I’ve already invested hundreds of hours in, but it would also result in me becoming unaware of the outside forces influencing the education process, and thus unprepared for my job.

The reason I mention this now is because this past weekend, for the first time in my life, I proctored a standardized test. Suffice it to say that this wasn’t the funnest assignment of my professional career, but I tried to be open-minded about it. Although I unequivocally believe that young people these days are forced to take far too many standardized tests, and that these tests offer only a narrow sliver into a student’s mind and educational progress, I think that these tests do serve some purpose. I’m not completely opposed to them, but I do think that they need to be drastically scaled back as quickly as possible, and we teachers need to do a better job of explaining exactly why these kinds of tests produce highly-imperfect results when it comes to gauging the kinds of factors that they’re so often used as measurements for, whether in public discourse or in the rackets that have been built around education these past few decades.

I could complain here about a variety of things, from having to wake up before sunrise on a Saturday (when I’m between semesters, no less), to how much my legs ached after standing around for so long, to how the scripts I had to recite to the testing students were nearly bereft of politeness. (Of all the hundreds of words I had to say, “please” was never in there even once.) Of course, I am getting a little extra money for my work, and that’s always nice, but after thinking about my experience over these past couple of days, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the bad far outweighed the good when it came to my first time proctoring a standardized test.

One of the main reasons I became a teacher was because I had to endure dozens and dozens of truly horrible teachers when I was younger, teachers who weren’t just bad at their jobs but also bad at being decent human beings, who taught me little more than how much damage terrible teachers can do to their students. I’ve often said that my primary driving force as a teacher is to be the kind of teacher for my students that I needed when I was younger, and that impulse often manifests itself in the help I provide for my students, inside the classroom as well as outside of it. I don’t give anything like standardized tests in my classes, not only because of my issues with testing in general but also because the kinds of writing-intensive classes I teach lend themselves to other ways of measuring student success, namely paper-writing. I still have to do a lot of work inside the classroom to get my students ready to write those papers outside of class, though, and I try to give my students as much of that help as I can while we’re face-to-face, when I can see the looks of confusion (or fatigue, or irritation, or what have you) on their faces, and I can give them the one-on-one help that’s so crucial in giving students the individualized education that will best meet their unique needs.

Having to stand there silently in that classroom while I proctored that standardized test was probably the most excruciating part of the whole experience for me, precisely because I couldn’t give them any help. I’d never met any of those students before that morning, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see any of them again, but even though I wasn’t about to help them with answers or anything like that (cheating is not learning), I still wanted to say something about my own feelings about standardized tests, and how I’m trying to do what I can, both in my professional and personal lives, to make education less painful and more effective. Instead, all I could do was watch over them as they filled out bubble after bubble, for hours on end, their early-morning anxiousness eventually turning to exhaustion. Proctoring a test like that isn’t teaching, and I knew that coming in, but I’d vastly underestimated how the whole process would leave me feeling just as tired, and more than that, just plain sad.

I probably will keep proctoring these tests here, simply because someone has to (now that I finally have a full-time teaching position, I’m kind of making up for lost time when it comes to volunteering for things that I wasn’t allowed to do as an adjunct in the Toledo area), but if I’m going to do that, then I need to work even harder here to make sure that all students — not just mine — get a quality education, and that they don’t have to suffer quite so much from the pain of taking so many standardized tests throughout their schooling. I have no illusions about being able to proctor these tests in a way that will leave the students liking me, but it would be nice if I could at least get through one of these tests liking myself a lot more than I do right now.

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